GRANITE CITY — Union officials and regional leaders on Wednesday promised to fight the closure of a century-old steel plant here, in the crosshairs of a company shifting gears.
The plant’s owner, Pittsburgh-based US Steel Corp., said this week it is working on plans to sell key parts of Granite City Works to Chicago-based SunCoke Energy and end steelmaking in late 2024. Nearly 1,000 jobs would be eliminated.
US Steel said it would continue finishing steel at the plant, and SunCoke plans to convert the facility’s blast furnaces into a 2-million-ton “pig iron” operation producing the building blocks for steelmaking at other company facilities. But that will only sustain about a third of the current workforce.
Dan Simmons, president of the local chapter of the United Steelworkers, called the decision a betrayal.
“Today Granite City Works is a viable and profitable steel operation,” Simmons said in a statement. “However, in pursuit of financial greed, USS plans to turn its back on both the skilled, hard-working steelworkers who have made this company successful and the community that has sustained it.”
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Officials vowed to fight the loss of the jobs. “Granite City’s a town of fighters, and we’re getting our ducks in a row to battle this,” Mayor Mike Parkinson said.
But for the company, it fits with a strategy of building “better, not bigger.” US Steel, one of the largest steel companies in the country, presented the news to investors as repurposing an older, coal-fired plant to fuel its growing fleet of newer, more efficient electric-powered operations. It’s a step competitors have already taken. “It’s safer, it’s cleaner and it’s cheaper,” said steel industry analyst Gordon Johnson, founder of GLJ Research in New York.
There has been a Granite City steel plant longer than there has been a Granite City.
St. Louis industrialists looking to make steel on cheap land across the river opened the plant that would become Granite City Works in 1895, a year before the city was included. It supplied rolled sheets to a sister stamping plant.
By the end of the next decade, it employed more than 1,000 people and had taken its place as a cornerstone of a town boasting connections with 10 rail lines and calling itself “The City of Great Industries.”
But when foreign competition and a collapse in demand brought the industry crashing down in the 1970s and 1980s, Granite City went with it. The plant’s workforce dropped from a peak of 5,000 in the mid-1970s to 2,800 by late 1982.
US Steel bought the operation in 2003 from a bankrupt National Steel, and, five years later, shuttered the plant, sending the town reeling. Cafes saw their lunch orders dry up. Trucks that once buzzed in and out of the mill disappeared. Thousands of workers flooded the unemployment line. They came back the next year, but in 2015, it happened again.
When former President Trump announced new taxes on imports in 2018 and US Steel reopened once more, there was hope the good times were back. Trump himself came to Granite City and delivered that very message.
“We’re watching this one closely, and it’s going up, Dave, only up,” Trump told US Steel CEO David Burritt, who joined the president on stage during his speech.
But the next year, US Steel spent $700 million to buy a stake in northeast Arkansas’ Big River Steel mill and its cleaner, cheaper electric furnaces, taking a step it once resisted.
Analysts asked Burritt then if the Big River buy meant a shutdown was coming in Granite City. He called their suggestions premature.
But on Tuesday, the call came down and the worries began anew.
“These guys make a good wager,” said Mayor Parkinson.
Craig McKey, a vice president at the union local, said the last time the place closed down, people lost their cars and their houses.
Parkinson said he’s doing all he can to stay that off. He spent the morning going from phone call to phone call reaching out to the company, state officials and the state’s congressional delegation for help.
The company has tried to pull out of Granite City before, he said, and they haven’t succeeded yet.
But McKey, who has worked at the plant for more than 25 years, worried that this time might be the one that does it.
“I fear for the worst,” he said.